How do you stop a runaway escalation in conflict between parent and teen? After bunches of mistakes, I’d have to offer the mere wisdom of letting go.
What Our Lives Used to Be Like
Once upon a time I wanted to protect my daughter from the forces that might harm her.
I fought against those forces. I fought the threats – some maybe only perceived – others tragic in their reality. Threats involving cyberbullying requiring trips to the E/R. And threats that included turning over to homicide detectives the IM transcripts between my daughter and the kids who murdered her friend.
I was up to such a fight. But it wasn’t just these things I had to fight. There was my daughter’s own resistance to my protection and a constantly escalating struggle. I listened to the network communication to keep her safe. She encrypted the communications. I placed filters on the computer in the network stack. She installed her own network stack. I installed a kernel-mode rootkit to completely own the operating system. She used live CD’s to bypass the operating system I installed completely.
I remember the day that I learned that I could not forcibly keep her safe. Her mom had convinced me to start deadbolting the house and hiding the key. This was a huge act of desperation for me – I had survived a fire in the middle of the night as a child and so knowing how to escape was always on my mind. One morning I awakened and found the deadbolt was loose – she had gotten a screwdriver and used it to remove the deadbolt so she could sneak out. As I was considering hunting down all screwdrivers and locking them into a toolchest I realized that I could not win the battle.
I could not force her to be safe.
It was a tragic moment of realization. It was the end of an illusion to which I clung. It was the end of a bunch of mistakes and the beginning of becoming teachable.
Later a counselor drove it home for me. She asked a simple question, “If your daughter decided to kill herself, what could you do to stop it?” The answer is that I couldn’t. Not that I got that right away. Like I said, I clung to that illusion that somehow I could try hard enough and through valiant effort, I could save her. But I had to admit that she was smart enough and I was too limited – unable to watch over her every moment – and that if she devoted her intelligence and creativity in that direction I could not stop her.
And in fact, probably, nobody could.
How Things Are Now
Now, almost three years later, my daughter uses the Internet without filters of any sort. The keys to leave the house at night are no longer hidden. And the responsibility to live and thrive and grow is where it should be – it’s on my daughter’s shoulders. I’d love to say that letting go made everything perfect, but it didn’t – there were still several more crises to get through and I was frightened several times about the choices my daughter made.
But things are better. And while letting go doesn’t make everything perfect, it does make it survivable for me. It makes the responsibility for her life fall onto her shoulders and not mine. It doesn’t mean that I am not interested or that I don’t love her – I do, I do! But what she hears from me now is that I love her enough to respect her decisions and the consequences she chooses.
We have boundaries, and she knows that if her behavior goes past those limits, than she cannot stay here any longer. But it’s her choice and her call – my job is just to uphold and enforce those consequences.
And our relationship is better than it has been in a long time.
Why Letting Go Works
I doubt I understand all of how this has improved my life well enough to explain it, but I will still try. I think this is one of those lessons one has to learn from their own mistakes, but maybe I can point out a different course of action if you are caught in this painful place of escalating conflict.
Imagine a tug of war with a rope between the two of us and my pulling it to the side of safety and her pulling it to the side of freedom. The closer I get the flag on the rope to my position, the harder she will pull it to her side and the more out of control she gets – the closer she gets to what she sees as freedom, the more desperate my pulling becomes. When she was younger, we started this game, and it worked because I could overpower her and drag her to my side.
But as she has gotten older, smarter and more creative, my ability to simply overpower this system is eventually lost. And as I try to continue to do so, the more she pulls against me. So I pull harder, so she pulls harder. Can you see this dynamic in our battle over controlling the Internet?
“Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be.”
But there is another option. The rope stays somewhere in the middle – not quite where I want it and not quite where she wants it. She’s seen the pain of winning too much freedom and so as I stop fighting her and lay my side of the rope down – so too, did she. Eventually.
Those boundaries I mentioned? She knows that if she chooses too many freedoms, she can’t live here with me and they may get her into worse places than living in my home. The rope is where it was before – the state is still that teen state of having to be between unsafe freedom and restrictive safety. But now we are not fighting to keep it there.
In fact, by refusing to fight her, she has found the fight is really between her and herself. This is the battle we all face and that our children must face and learn to win. Before, the only option for her to master was in defeating me – now she has a chance to learn self-mastery.
Free to Become Her Daddy
So letting go does work. It’s terrifying and seems completely the wrong thing to do. But try harder and then harder again was not working so it was time to try to let go. Now that she doesn’t see me as her opponent in everything, I have become free to become her father a little more and a little deeper.
I’ll take it.